Author Archives: larrycuban

About larrycuban

I am a former high school teacher and district superintendent who has researched school reform policies, the history of teaching, and classroom technologies for many years

Sharp Decline in High School Graduation Exams Is Testing the Education System (Jay Mathews)

This article appeared December 31, 2017 in the Washington Post.

“Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.”

In this new year, we are experiencing a drastic change in the way U.S. students are assessed. A national movement led by educators, parents and legislators has greatly cut back high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.

Five years ago, 25 states had standardized high school exit exams whose results affected graduation. Now, only 13 states are doing that. A report by the nonprofit FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing has revealed this shift and chronicled efforts to reduce many other kinds of testing.

It’s a breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating. National dissatisfaction with our schools hasn’t changed much. It is at 52 percent, according to the Gallup Poll, about where it was in 2012 when 25 states had exit tests. That may have something to do with another development even more important to our schools’ futures.

In December, the Collaborative for Student Success, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners, reported on state efforts to install creative programs to boost achievement, as encouraged by the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Those efforts are failing miserably, according to 45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law. “States largely squandered the opportunity . . . to create stronger, more innovative education plans,” the report said. “Most states did not indicate specific steps to improve underperforming schools, nor did they describe concrete, rigorous interventions that underperforming schools should implement.”

You may say: So what? Who needs the states or the feds to improve our schools? Educators, parents and students working together can get it done.

In some cases, that is true. In every chapter of our long national education story, innovative teachers, often with parental help, have instituted deeper, livelier, more demanding lessons. As the country has become more affluent and its families more ambitious, the better our schools have become.

But that has been a slow process, with frustrating ups and downs. The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either. Other high-stakes exams that affect grades, such as finals written by teachers, will continue to have a big impact on students’ lives.

The 13 states that have high school exit exams are Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Public high schools in other states must still give state tests, even if they don’t affect diplomas.

Parts of Maryland and Virginia, along with the District, make up the very education-conscious Washington area. That region continues to have the highest concentration of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge testing in the country. Those are nongovernment programs mostly out of the reach of the legislatures and boards that have reduced exit tests.


The effort to raise school standards since I left high school in the 1960s has been a carnival ride. The growing use of the SAT to measure high schools in the 1970s brought a backlash, as did the landmark 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report, the 1990s standards movement, the federal No Child Left Behind law in the 2000s and the Common Core State Standards in the past decade or so.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement. The Collaborative for Student Success study notes that many states “proposed graduation rate goals that far exceeded proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more, creating the potential for states to graduate students that are not adequately prepared for their futures.”

That’s the way it goes, back and forth, learning advancing in some places, languishing in others. Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.




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Grading Students: Defying the System

I once fired a teacher for giving an A to every student he taught.

George D. was a high school social studies teacher in Arlington (VA) where I  served as superintendent. In the Fall of 1976, the principal of one of the district high schools (1500 students half of whom were minority) called me and said that he had received complaints from parents that George D. had given As to all of his students. The parents were outraged because they believed that there was a bell-shaped curve of performance and in a class of 30 students, maybe 3-5 would receive As. Most students would receive Bs, Cs, and Ds and a few would fail. These parents believed in a meritocratic system and that teachers were expected to grade students on how well they performed academically. This teacher, they told the principal was both mocking and  destroying values that were important to them and their sons and daughters.

I asked the principal to meet with the teacher, ascertain whether or not the teacher had done what parents alleged and, if so, find out why he had. Also to take notes and direct quotes from the teacher. I further asked the principal to meet with some of the teacher’s students to confirm whatever the teacher had said and done.

The principal called me at home that evening and said he had spoken with the teacher and, yes, George D. had given all of his students As because the common system of grading used in public schools was biased against poor and minority students,  shut down real learning, and reproduced the inequalities prevalent in society. The principal then said that those students in his classes he had contacted confirmed that the teacher had given them As.

I asked George D. to come in the next day to meet with me. Having with me the notes that the principal had taken in his interview with the teacher and from what students had said, I wanted to know if what he had told the principal and students was accurate. Correcting a few details, George D. basically agreed that he had given each one of  his students an A. No, he had not reached out to parents to discuss his decision about giving As. He again gave as his reasons the inequities that minority students faced and his efforts to level the playing field and focus students on learning social studies content and skills rather than completing work to get a certain grade. I chose not to argue the merits of what he said. I wanted to confirm that the facts were accurate. He did not dispute the facts. I called School Board members and informed them of the situation and that I planned to dismiss the teacher. None of the five members disagreed.

Since George D. was a probationary teacher, state law permitted a superintendent to fire such teachers without going through the process laid out in the collective bargaining agreement that protected Arlington tenured teachers from such dismissals.

I spoke with George D. the following day and fired him. He then went to the Washington Post and other local newspapers, a radio talk show, and other media telling his side of the story. The papers and local TV stations carried the news that evening and the following morning. When asked by reporters I had no comment since it was a personnel matter. Within a week, no mention of George D. occurred in the media and a new teacher had been hired to teach George’s social studies classes.

What is the point of this story?

In retrospect, I can see now (although at the time, I didn’t have the concepts and language to say it clearly) that George D. had stumbled over a dilemma anchored in the DNA of public schools. Americans prize historic and pervasive values of treating all students equitably, encouraging individual excellence, and building classroom communities. But all three values can not be achieved within age-graded schools where teachers face mixed and same-ability groups of children and youth for four to six hours daily, are required to give letter grades to students, and have limited time and other resources. George D. made a unilateral decision giving sole priority to treating all students equitably, ignoring that parents, other teachers, and administrators have tried pursuing all three values working out day-to-day compromises as they traversed the school day.

George D. either had not considered or didn’t know sufficiently that teachers, parents, and policymakers, while trying to offer equal opportunity and a sense of community cherish highly excellence which is procedurally embedded within the age-graded school: tracked classes such as honors and Advanced Placement; ranking of students by grade-point-average, periodic report cards. In effect, teachers judge student performance and are expected to assign marks that have consequences for students’ academic careers.

Consider the value of excellence–-creating meritocratic rankings (e.g., A-F letter grades, honor roll societies, class valedictorians)-–since parents, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners believe in their heart-of-hearts that only a few students can grab the high letter grades and achieve academic excellence while most classmates fall in the middle of the distribution in academic performance. That belief in a “natural” distribution in performance has been compressed into a fact-of-life within age-graded schools (and other workplaces) that parents, policymakers, practitioners, and researcher heed, as George D. found out.

There have been (and are now) efforts to eliminate A-F grading (see here, here, here, and here). Advocates today offer some of the reasons that George D. gave in defense of his actions but these few teachers and administrators have reached out to parents, teachers, and colleges to explain what they want to do with their students before instituting their plans. Working through the dilemma of finessing contradictory values by abolishing  grades amid the dominant social beliefs, societal commitment to a meritocratic system (real or illusionary), equalizing opportunity, and building community, remains both hard and steady work.







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Teaching To The Middle: Teaching as Mediocrity?

This time of year, when classes are over, but I haven’t yet graded, I start thinking about what I could have done differently. Inevitably, I think about the students I didn’t quite seem to reach, the ones I could have helped more. Inevitably, those are students at either end of the spectrum, the top and the bottom. Without intending to, I often teach to the middle.

Sure, the students could have done more themselves. They could have come to class more or pushed themselves more, but often, they don’t even know what to do. And that’s where I think I could step in more and offer more guidance….

The top students, I think, are less harmed by my inability to teach to them. They will push themselves anyway, if not in my class, in another class along the way. It’s the students at the bottom that I feel like I’ve let down. And some of them, frankly, are not motivated and would likely balk at my strategies for helping them, or they would do the tasks in a half-hearted way. I could insist and insist, but ultimately, it’s up to them to do the work. And, of course, that’s how I justify not putting forth the extra effort, thinking to myself, well, they wouldn’t do it anyway.

A middle school math teacher wrote this in 2005. It applies, I believe, to most public school teachers who face 25-30 students (or more) in an elementary school classroom and use ability grouping for about six hours or 150-plus students daily in 50-minute segments who are tracked into math, science, or history classes for a secondary school teacher.

It surely applied to me in the 14 years that I taught high school history and social studies between the mid-1950s and early-1970s and then in the mid-1990s. That I was doing so in schools where students were tracked by subject area was unclear to me in the early years of making lesson plans for my classes. But it became clear to me by the third or fourth year that I was doing exactly that. I had mentally divided up each class into top-of-the-ladder, middle rungs, and bottom of the ladder students. Sure, I varied my questions, activities, and assignments to get across-the-board student participation but my choice of content and skills aimed at the high-middle of my imagined distribution in performance across classes.

And this was true for me, as I suspect for others, who teach (or taught) classes tracked for similar abilities and performance. In Washington, D.C. in the 1960s where I served for a decade, the “track system” used group intelligence test scores to sort students into the “Honor,” “College Preparatory,” “General,” and “Basic” tracks.  For example, I would  teach College Preparatory and Basic Track classes and even in these classes, students ranged in performance and, yes, I would teach to the middle.

Like the above blogging teacher, she and I did a lot of things to mitigate the thrust of our lessons to the middle. We used small groups, set aside time to work individually with low- and high-performing students, offered extra credit for additional reading and projects, etc. ,etc. All well and good but within the confines of our limited time with the students and having a life outside of school and few additional resources, there was not much more that could be done.

What the blogging teacher and I faced was a dilemma anchored in the DNA of public schools. We prize the historic and pervasive American values of treating all students equitably, encouraging individual excellence, and building classroom communities. But all three values can not be achieved within age-graded schools where teachers teach mixed and same-ability groups of children and youth for four to six hours daily, are required to give letter grades to students, and have limited resources.

Recognizing this dilemma, then, I ask: Is teaching to the middle of class another way of saying teaching for mediocrity? No, it is not.

Mediocrity, as used in describing U.S. schooling means inferior quality of a product and performance. It is a slur slung at those who are “average” or in the middle of a distribution–the C student or the girl who finishes 15th out of 40 in the 100 meter dash. Both tried hard but came up short in earning that C or finishing in the middle of the pack in the race. And it is unfair.

Why unfair? Two reasons.

First, few policymakers, administrators, and practitioners acknowledge, much less recognize, the inherent dilemma of crafting compromises–you sacrifice to satisfy–to achieve some version of these prized values embedded in the American ethos. A prime example is the value of excellence–creating a meritocratic ranking of excellence (e.g., A-F letter grades, honor roll societies, class valedictorians)–yet parents, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners believe in their heart-of-hearts that only a few grab the high letter grades and achieve excellence as defined by the school while most others fall in the middle.

Such teacher decisions (including mine for many years) are an open secret that often goes unmentioned by current practitioners. As a result, ignoring the dilemma faced by all teachers, decision-makers see the situation as simply teachers not delivering high-quality lessons, not fulfilling what they should be doing. Teachers then are mediocre.

The second reason are social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve. Teachers see the distribution of students in classrooms as “natural” and a fact of life anchored in the socially-constructed bell-shaped curve. Most policymakers and practitioners accept the distribution of intelligence and performance as true and use it as basis for ability grouping within a class and tracking in a school. Surely, varied talents (e.g., artistic, athletic, cognitive) are distributed unequally across individuals. In a competitive society where individual performance and equal opportunity are prized everyone can not get As or win races.  The middle is shunned because “average” and “middling” have become synonyms for mediocrity in American society.

The larger issue of fairness is whether the purpose of the school is to continue reproducing the societal inequalities embedded in the grading system and through ability and tracking policies or embrace a belief that the primary purpose of the school is to reduce–not reproduce– racial, ethnic, and class inequalities through restructuring the age-graded school and its schedule, grouping policies, letter grades, and other initiatives aimed at breaking the iron cage constructed by social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve and the existing age-graded school.

But a teacher now faced with the practical issue of a class of students with varied talents, motivations, interests, and performance–whether it is a class sunk in the bottom quintile or Advanced Placement students–wants to be fair and equitable to each student. She wants excellence and a classroom community. She wants all students to achieve. But she cannot because of insufficient personal and organizational resources and the existing structural trap within which administrators require the teacher to grade students and assign groups of varied individual students to her classroom who must follow a rigid daily schedule, do homework, take tests, and receive report cards. The steel-lined beliefs held by so many educators about the “natural” distribution of talent and achievement plus the inherent dilemma facing all public school teachers working within the structures of age-graded schools, in effect, may help to explain why so many teachers teach to the middle.






Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

5 Risks Posed by the Increasing Misuse of Technology in Schools (Diane Ravitch)

  “Diane Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Founder and President of the Network for Public Education (NPE) and blogs at”

This appeared in EdSurge, December 29, 2017

At any given moment in the day, I am attached to my cellphone, my iPad or my computer. As a writer, I was an early convert to the computer. I began writing on a TRS-80 from Radio Shack in 1983 on wonderful writing software called WordPerfect, which has mysteriously disappeared. I had two TRS-80s, because one of them was always in repair. I love the computer for many reasons. I no longer had to white out my errors; I no longer had to retype an entire article because of errors. My handwriting is almost completely illegible. The computer is a godsend for a writer and editor.

I have seen teachers who use technology to inspire inquiry, research, creativity and excitement. I understand what a powerful tool it is.

But it is also fraught with risk, and the tech industry has not done enough to mitigate the risks.

Risk One: The Threat to Student Privacy

Risk one is the invasion of student privacy, utilizing data by tech companies collected when students are online. The story of inBloom is a cautionary tale. Funded in 2014 with $100 million from the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, inBloom intended to collect massive amounts of personally identifiable student data and use it to “personalize” learning to each student.

Parents became alarmed by the plan to put their children’s data into a cloud and mobilized in communities and states to stop inBloom. They were not nearly as impressed by the possibilities of data-driven instruction as the entrepreneurs promoting inBloom. The parents won. State after state dropped out, and inBloom collapsed.

Though inBloom is dead, the threat to student privacy is not. Every time a student makes a keystroke, an algorithm somewhere is collecting information about that student. Will his or her data be sold? The benefit to entrepreneurs and corporations is clear; the benefit to students is not at all clear.

Risk Two: The Proliferation of ‘Personalized Learning’

Personalized learning, or “competency-based education,” are both euphemisms for computer adaptive instruction. Again, a parent rebellion is brewing, because parents want their children taught by a human being, not a computer. They fear that their children will be mechanized, standardized, subjected to depersonalized instruction, not “personalized learning.” While many entrepreneurs are investing in software to capture this burgeoning industry, there is still no solid evidence that students learn more or better when taught by a computer.

Risk Three: The Extensive Use of Technology for Assessment.

Technology is highly compatible with standardized testing, which encourages standardized questions and standardized answers. If the goal of learning is to teach creativity, imagination, and risk-taking, assessment should encourage students to be critical thinkers, not accepting the conventional wisdom, not checking off the right answer. Furthermore, the ability of computers to judge essays is still undeveloped and may remain so. Professor Les Perelman at MIT demonstrated that computer-graded essays can get high scores for gibberish and that computers lack the “intelligence” to reason or understand what matters most in writing.

Risk four: The Cyber Charter School

Most such virtual schools, or cyber charters, are operated for profit; the largest of them is a chain called K12 Inc., which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Its executives are paid millions of dollars each year. Its biggest initial investor was the junk bond king Michael Milken. Numerous articles in publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have documented high student attrition, low teacher wages, low student test scores and low graduation rates. Yet the company is profitable.

The most controversial school in Ohio is the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), whose owner makes political contributions to office-holders and has collected about $1 billion in taxpayer dollars since 2000. ECOT reputedly has the lowest graduation rate in the nation. The state of Ohio recently won a lawsuit requiring ECOT to return $60 million because of inflated enrollment figures. Studies of cyber charters have concluded that students learn very little when enrolled in them. There may be students who have legitimate reasons to learn at home online, but these “schools” should not receive the same tuition as brick-and-mortar schools that have certified teachers, custodians, libraries, the costs of physical maintenance, playgrounds, teams, school nurses and other necessities.

Risk Five: Money in Edtech

The tech industry wields its money in dubious ways to peddle its product. The market for technology is burgeoning, and a large industry is hovering around the schools, eager for their business. In November 2017, the New York Times published an expose of the business practices of the tech industry in Baltimore County. It documented payola, influence peddling and expensive wining and dining of school officials, which resulted in nearly $300 million of spending on computers that received low ratings by evaluators and that were soon obsolescent. This, in a district that has neglected the basic maintenance of some of its buildings.

The greatest fear of parents and teachers is that the tech industry wants to replace teachers with computers. They fear that the business leaders want to cut costs by replacing expensive humans with inexpensive machines, that never require health care or a pension. They believe that education requires human interaction. They prefer experience, wisdom, judgment, sensibility, sensitivity and compassion in the classroom to the cold, static excellence of a machine.

I agree with them.


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Whatever Happened to the Coalition of Essential Schools?

They are gone. What began as Ted Sizer’s ground-breaking effort to reform U.S.’s 25,000 high schools over three decades ago, reaching 1000-plus schools by 1997, the year Sizer retired from CES. In 2017, there were less than 100 schools affiliated with CES.

Is this a story of a reform birthed in one educational crisis dying during a later one? Or is it a story of a reform centered on one person who, over time, built an organization that lost ideas and energy while failing to generate sufficient funds after the founder left? Or is it a time-tested story of a reform that succeeded by spreading its progressive gospel far and wide appearing in many other policies, programs, and places?

Where an When Did the Idea Originate?
A former headmaster at Phillips Academy, Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and professor at Brown University, Ted Sizer believed deeply in John Dewey’s concept of “democratic pluralism” and the importance of learning both knowledge and skills through face-to-face interactions with students in smaller settings than existing high schools. These ideas gained increased traction from Sizer experiences as headmaster at Phillips Academy. In 1981 he and a team of researchers received funds to do a five year study of American high schools. They  wrote three books: Theodore Sizer, Horace’s Compromise (1984), Arthur Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David Cohen, The Shopping Mall High School (1985), and Robert Hampel, The Last Little Citadel (1986). From this research, writing of the books, and bringing together like-minded educators, the Coalition was founded in 1987 and spread rapidly across the nation throughout the 1990s (see here, here, and here).

What Does a Coalition School Look Like?

Begun with an initial cohort of 12 high schools across the country, no one model of a secondary school was pushed. Instead, Sizer and his staff formulated 10 principles upon which educators should build schools that fit their setting. These principles were:

1. Learning to use one’s mind well:
The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well. Schools should not be “comprehensive” if such a claim is made at the expense of the school’s central intellectual purpose.

2. Less is more: depth over coverage:
The school’s goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. While these skills and areas will, to varying degrees, reflect the traditional academic disciplines, the program’s design should be shaped by the intellectual and imaginative powers and competencies that the students need, rather than by “subjects” as conventionally defined. The aphorism “less is more” should dominate: curricular decisions should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery and achievement rather than by an effort to merely cover content.

3.Goals apply to all students:
The school’s goals should apply to all students, while the means to these goals will vary as those students themselves vary. School practice should be tailor-made to meet the needs of every group or class of students.

Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent. Efforts should be directed toward a goal that no teacher have direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school. To capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.

5.Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach:
The governing practical metaphor of the school should be “student-as-worker”, rather than the more familiar metaphor of “teacher as deliverer of instructional services.” Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.

6.Demonstration of mastery:
Teaching and learning should be documented and assessed with tools based on student performance of real tasks. Students not yet at appropriate levels of competence should be provided intensive support and resources to assist them quickly to meet standards. Multiple forms of evidence, ranging from ongoing observation of the learner to completion of specific projects, should be used to better understand the learner’s strengths and needs, and to plan for further assistance. Students should have opportunities to exhibit their expertise before family and community. The diploma should be awarded upon a successful final demonstration of mastery for graduation: an “Exhibition.” As the diploma is awarded when earned, the school’s program proceeds with no strict age grading and with no system of “credits earned” by “time spent” in class.

7.A tone of decency and trust:
The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation, of trust, and of decency (fairness, generosity, and tolerance). Incentives appropriate to the school’s particular students and teachers should be emphasized. Families should be key collaborators and vital members of the school community.

8.Commitment to the entire school:
The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first (teachers and scholars in general education) and specialists second (experts in but one particular discipline). Staff should expect multiple obligations (teacher-counselor-manager) and demonstrate a sense of commitment to the entire school.

9.Resources dedicated to teaching and learning:
Ultimate administrative and budget targets should include student loads that promote personalization, substantial time for collective planning by teachers, competitive salaries for staff, and an ultimate per-pupil cost not to exceed that at traditional schools by more than 10 percent. To accomplish this, administrative plans may have to show the phased reduction or elimination of some services now provided to students in many schools.

10.Democracy and equity:
The school should demonstrate non-discriminatory and inclusive policies, practices, and pedagogies. It should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school. The school should honor diversity and build on the strength of its communities, deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity.

These principles echoing Deweyan  ideas of teaching and learning (block scheduling, integrated subjects, cooperative learning, portfolios, and senior projects) dictated that CES schools would be much smaller than comprehensive high schools (average size around 1500 students). CES schools advanced the small high school movement (including schools-within-a-school) receiving a large grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003. Hard as it was to hit the 80 students target per teacher (see 4 above), reduce high school subjects to Humanities and math/science (see 2 above) and students exhibiting mastery in projects they designed (see 6 above), many schools across the U.S. joined CES.

As a result of this flexibility, CES schools differed from one another. Central Park East Secondary School in New York City under Deborah Meier clearly differed from Thayer High School in New Hampshire under Dennis Littky yet both adhered to the above principles as best they could.

For more descriptions of CES schools see here, here, and here.

What Problems Did Coalition Schools Intend To Solve?

The comprehensive high school, a progressive reform introduced in the 1920s, had over subsequent decades become encrusted with problems that undercut the hopes of that generation of reformers and subsequent students, teachers, and principals. Large enrollments, heavy sports programs, rushed daily schedules, and textbook-driven instruction encouraged student anonymity, alienation, and compliant behavior that weakened teacher’s motivation to do ambitious teaching, students’ pursuit of intellectual learning and independent thinking. Sizer laid out all of these problems in Horace’s Compromise (1984) and schools enacting the CES principles sought to solve if not diminish these issues.

CES grew simultaneously with the surging companion reform in the 1990s (driven by donor and federal funds) of dividing large high schools into smaller ones within the same building or as separate schools. Smallness plus organizational arrangements like advisories (15 students meet with a teacher one or more times a week to discuss different issues they face), scheduled time to display exhibitions of work to both school and larger community sought to encourage high-quality intellectual work through building strong relationships between teachers and students and among students.

Did CES Schools Work?

If by “work” one means higher, the same as, or lower test scores than comprehensive high schools, I know of no such studies.

If by “work” one means that different ways of organizing high schools, a Deweyan model complete with language that resonated with teachers and principles about how secondary schools can be–see above principles–and the existence of a variety of such schools across the country in 2018, then surely CES “worked.”

If “work” means reducing considerably student anonymity and isolation in their small high schools, then CES “worked.”

What CES did was provide models of different high schools that were intellectually ambitious in teaching and learning and eventually became part of the charter school movement and growth of portfolios of schools in urban districts over the past decade (see here and here). That too is another definition of “work.”

What Happened to CES?

Sizer and wife Nancy founded the Parker Charter School in Devens (MA) in 1995 both serving as co-principals for one year; After Sizer left the organization in 1997, he went on to do other things close to his heart. Ted Sizer died in 2009. After three decades, CES shut its national office doors in 2018.

Of the three stories I began this look backward at CES, which story best explains what happened?

As a national organization with regional centers, money to fund staff, conferences, and the like required a dependable flow of annual funds. Donors supplied some funding, fees for affiliating with CES, and charging for staff services contributed also but overall a steady and reliable flow of revenue to match expenditures became a yearly hassle especially after Sizer left the organization.

The lack of  dependable  annual financing may also have gone hand-in-hand with another phenomenon.  CES closed due to the spread of its ideas to emerging charters, the growth of small high schools across the country, and schools adopting ideas of ambitious, intellectual teaching and learning from CES practices.

My guess is that all three stories (see second paragraph above) capture pieces of an overall explanation for the birth, evolution of, and disappearance of CES.



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Lessons Learned in School Reform(Frederick Hess)

This article appeared December 13, 2017 in the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine, The American Educator

“Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.” Since 2001, he has served as executive editor of Education Next.

Before joining AEI, Dr. Hess was a high school social studies teacher. He teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University.”


It’s been three decades since I started substitute teaching for beer money in Waltham, Massachusetts, back in the 1980s. It’s been a quarter century since I stopped teaching high school social studies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s been two decades since I first started teaching education policy at the University of Virginia. And it’s been 15 years since I became a scholar of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

In other words, I’ve been in and around schooling for a long time. And, while I’m not the quickest study, like anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in education, I’ve got a gut reaction to the term “school reformer.” For some, it summons images of heroic charter school leaders. For others, it brings to mind “deformers” bent on destroying public education.

For me? It’s something a bit different: I find myself wondering why the handiwork of passionate, well-meaning people so often disappoints. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I say all this as someone who, for many long years, has been labeled a school reformer.

Now, a few reformers will deny that reform has disappointed. They’ll argue that dozens of new teacher-evaluation systems have delivered, never mind the growing piles of paperwork, dubious scoring systems, or lack of evidence that they’ve led to any changes in how many teachers are deemed effective or in need of improvement. They’ll insist that the conception and rollout of the Common Core State Standards went swimmingly, never mind the politicized mess, half-baked implementation, or fractured testing regime. They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter that the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants didn’t move test scores or that Education Next reports that charter schools are less popular today than they’ve been in 15 years.

I’m going to set such claims aside. Having spent a lot of time with reformers over the past 25 years, I can confidently report that most will privately concede that much didn’t work out as hoped or as they’d anticipated. If you think I’m wrong, that things are working out splendidly and just as advertised, then feel free to skip this article and my recent book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer.

Now, at this point, there are those who will sigh, “Of course those reforms didn’t work! They were never supposed to!! They’ve all been part of an ideological crusade to undermine democratic schooling and privatize public education.” They’ll argue that two decades of school reform, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top, was never really intended to be about improving schools. If this is how you see things, you too will probably want to skip this article. Because, after long experience, I’ve found that the lion’s share of reformers—whatever they get right or wrong—are passionate and sincere about wanting to make schools better.

But, if we can agree to set aside hyperbolic claims that reform has “worked” and avoid suggesting that missteps are just part of an evil scheme, we can get to the question I want to discuss: Why have good intentions and energetic efforts so often disappointed? What exactly have we learned from all of this?

What I’ve Learned

On this count, I think I have something useful to share. I want to talk about three lessons I’ve learned along the way.

The Role of Policy

Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. And, when it comes to improving schools, doing things well is pretty much the whole ball game. As a policy wonk with a PhD in political science, this realization pained me to no end. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still think policy has an important role to play. Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. That’s why I’m a school reformer. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

Reformers, for instance, have attempted time and again to devise policies that would “turn around” low-performing schools. There was the 1990s-era Comprehensive School Reform Program, the interventions mandated by No Child Left Behind, and the Obama administration’s $7 billion School Improvement Grants program. Unfortunately, the research has found no evidence that any of this worked consistently. Indeed, a recent federal evaluation of the School Improvement Grants program couldn’t unearth any significant effects on learning, no matter how the data were diced. Schools can turn around—we just don’t have a clue about how to make this happen via policy.

Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.

Here’s what I mean: Say a governor wants to mandate that all schools offer teacher induction based on a terrific program she’s seen. Her concern is that if the directive is too flexible, some schools will do it enthusiastically and well, but those she’s most concerned about will not. So, she wants to require schools to assign a mentor to each new teacher. But then she worries that the “problem schools” will treat the mentoring as busywork. So, she also wants to require that mentors meet weekly with their charges and document that they’ve addressed 11 key topics in each session. But this still can’t ensure that mentors will treat their duties as more than box-checking, so she wants to require…

You see the problem. Then it gets worse. Far too often, in fact, policy unfolds like a children’s game of telephone. In Washington, D.C., federal officials have a clear vision of what they think a change in guidance on Title I spending should mean. But when officials in 50 states read that new guidance, they don’t all understand it the same way. Those officials have to explain it to thousands of district Title I coordinators, who then provide direction to school leaders and teachers. By that point, bureaucracy, confusion, and nervous compliance can start to become the law of the land. Now, multiply that a hundredfold for the deluge of state and federal rules that rain down. When all this doesn’t work out as hoped, there’s a tendency for those responsible to insist that the policy is sound and any issues are just “implementation problems.” I’ll put this bluntly: there’s no such thing as an implementation problem. It took a while, but I eventually learned that what matters in schooling is what actually happens to 50 million kids in 100,000 schools. That’s all implementation. Calling something an implementation problem is a fancy way to avoid saying that we didn’t realize how a new policy would really work.

We Can’t Patronize Parents…or Give Them a Free Pass

We’ve mucked up the relationship between parents and educators. We’ve lost the confidence to insist that parents have to do their part. Now, it’s important here to remember that the conviction that every child can learn—and that schools should be expected to teach every child—was not always the norm. It represents a tectonic shift and a hard-won victory. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, American education paid a lot of attention to the quality of parenting and far too little to the quality of teaching and schooling. Complaints that parents weren’t doing their part too often seemed to be an excuse for leaving kids behind. I taught and mentored student teachers in that era, in a number of schools across several states, and can testify that it wasn’t unusual to hear educators declare that certain students were unteachable and that it was their parents’ fault.

Today, that mindset is regarded as unacceptable. Teachers are expected to teach every child. That’s a wonderful thing. I fear, though, that the insistence that parents do their part has been lost along the way. Talk of parental responsibility has come to be seen as little more than a case of blaming the victim. The result is that we just don’t talk very much anymore, at least in public, about whether parents insist that their kids do their homework or respect their teachers. When students are truant, we hesitate to say anything that would imply parents are at fault. When only a handful of parents show up at parent-teacher meetings, reformers are conspicuously mum. If they do take note, it’s usually only to lament that parents are overworked and overburdened.

Obviously, these are thorny questions. Parents frequently are overburdened. But there’s a necessary balance here, and we’ve managed to tip from one extreme to the other. Education is always a handshake between families and schools. It can help to think about this in terms of healthcare. When we say people are good doctors, we mean that they’re competent and responsible; we don’t mean that they perform miracles. If a doctor tells you to reduce your cholesterol and you keep eating steak, we don’t label the physician a “bad doctor.” We hold the doctor responsible for doing her job, but expect patients to do their part, too. When the patient is a child, the relationship is the same—but the parents assume a crucial role. If a diabetic child ignores the doctor’s instructions on monitoring blood sugar, we don’t blame the doctor. And we don’t blame the kid. We expect parents to take responsibility and make sure it gets done.

When it comes to the handshake between parents and educators, though, that same understanding has broken down. Talk of parental responsibility is greeted with resistance and even accusations of bias. Yet parents have an outsized impact on their children’s academic future. Children whose parents read to them, talk to them, and teach them self-discipline are more likely to succeed academically.

The point is decidedly not to scapegoat parents or to judge them. I know all too well how tough and exhausting parenthood can be. The point is to clarify for parents what they should be doing and help them do those things well. Today, we ask educators to accept responsibility for the success of all their students. Good. How students fare, though, is also a product of whether they do their work and take their studies seriously. Some of that truly is beyond the reach of educators. So, by all means, let’s call teachers to account—let’s just be sure to do it for parents, too.

The Crucial Partnership between Talkers and Doers

School reform isn’t about having good ideas—it’s about how those ideas actually work for students and educators. This can be hard for those gripped by a burning desire to make the world a better place in a hurry. Reformers need to sweat things like perverse incentives and paperwork burdens—even when they’d rather focus on larger issues like equity or injustice. They must consider how reforms will affect the day-to-day lives of students, families, and educators. It can seem like good ideas and good intentions should count for more than they do. They don’t.

Most educators innately know all this, of course. After all, they spend their days working in schools. They tend to think granularly, in terms of individual students, curricular units, and instructional strategies. Educators are deeply versed in the fabric of schooling and experience the unintended consequences of reforms. This is why it’s easy for them to get so frustrated with self-styled reformers.

Educators are right to be skeptical. Reformers and practitioners will inevitably see things differently. But what frustrated teachers can miss is that this is OK, even healthy. Educators are looking from the inside out, and reformers from the outside in. In all walks of life, there are doers and there are talkers. Doers are the people who teach students, attend to patients, and fix plumbing. Talkers are free to survey the sweep of what’s being done and explore ways to do it better.

Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied. The bureaucracy that reformers decry can also infuriate and demoralize the teachers who live with it every day. Educators see when policies misfire and where existing practices come up short. Talkers have the time to examine the big picture, learn from lots of locales, and forge relationships with policymakers. Talkers have the distance to raise hard truths that can be tough for educators to address simply because they strike so close to home. But it’s ultimately the doers—the educators—who have to do the work, which means talkers need to pay close attention to what educators have to say. There’s a crucial symbiosis here: teachers and talkers need each other.

How I Hope to Do Better

Look, I’ll offer a confession: I’m not an especially nice guy. When I suggest that talkers and doers need to listen to those who see things differently, that policymakers are well-served by humility, or that reform needs to work for teachers as well as students, it’s not because I want everyone to get along. It’s because education improvement is hard work. Doing it well is at least as much about discipline and precision as it is about passion. What I’m counseling is not niceness but professionalism. This means listening more deliberately and speaking more selectively. It’s tough to listen, though, when we’re constantly shouting at one another.

It may not fit the tenor of the times. But I’ve learned that, if we’re to do better going forward, we all need to respect the limits of policy, ask more of parents, and appreciate the symbiosis of talkers and doers—while also always remembering that in schooling, it’s the doing that counts.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Cartoons on Mediocrity

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about how Americans consider familiar concepts such as “average,” “middling,” and “mediocre.” I have written a few posts on the stigma attached to being “average” in American society and how closely the word tracks the negatively charged one, “mediocre.” Americans have decidedly mixed feelings of being in the middle and do not like their work to be either labeled mediocre or have the name attached to individuals. So for the cartoon feature this month, I have collected a dozen or so cartoons about how graphic artists see the word. Enjoy!























Filed under Uncategorized